Doctors are one of the most respected professionals in the world. Day in and day out, physicians help people when they are at their worst, working diligently to promote happier and healthier lives for their patients and others around them.
Generally speaking, we all see doctors as rich, but are they? More importantly, do they get compensated fairly for their years of education, residency, long hours, and genuinely challenging job? If this interests you, keep reading and you’ll know precisely if doctors are rich.
Definition of “Rich”
Before we can discuss whether doctors are rich or not, we must first define what we mean by the word “rich,” and one can always earn more money. There is no official definition of rich, but here are a couple of reasonable definitions:
- The top 1% of earners (per-year income ≥ $597,000)
- The top 1% by net worth (net worth ≥ $11 million)
Ultimately, you can decide for yourself what it means to be rich, but these can serve as valuable references throughout this article as we get to the bottom of whether or not doctors are indeed rich.
How Much Do Doctors Make?
For most of us, the first thing we consider when deciding if a person is rich – including doctors – is their income. Our income is generally the source of the money that contributes to our overall wealth, so it’s an excellent place to start.
A doctor’s salary can vary dramatically depending on their specialty.
For example, in a 2023 Physician Compensation Report published by Doximity and Curative, the top earning specialty was Neurosurgery, with an average annual salary of $788,313. On the end of the spectrum was Pediatric endocrinology at $218,266.
Here are the average annual salaries of other specialties:
- Plastic Surgery at 571,373
- Dermatology at $468,509
- Pediatrics at $242,832
- Family medicine at $273,040
As you can see, this is a pretty wide range, so we’ll highlight some more examples of specialties and where they fall along that spectrum.
Doctor Salaries vs. Average Salary
The average salary of doctors is significantly higher than that in the United States, which was approximately $54,000 in 2022.
If we put this into context with the top 1% of earners’ definition of $597,000, we can see some specialties get very close. Even if doctors aren’t in the top 1%, they make it into the top 5% of earners, which is approximately $240,000 annually.
To put that into perspective, any doctor’s average salary, regardless of specialty, will put them in the top 5% (if not 1%) of earners in the United States.
Given this reality, doctors should either be rich or very close to it. However, this is not always true. That’s because there are other important factors to consider when determining if an individual is wealthy.
Things That Stop Doctors from Being Rich
One of the factors to consider when looking at a physician’s income is where they are located. The state and city of physicians can significantly impact their annual income.
For example, a 2022 report shows physicians earned between $407,000 and $430,000 in the top 10 highest-earning metro areas. On the other hand, in the top 10 lowest-earning metro areas, physicians made an average annual salary between $340,000 and $362,000.
Depending on the state and metro area, a doctor’s salary can vary wildly, often to compensate for a higher or lower cost of living. That being said, there are even more influential factors to consider.
1. Student Loan Debt
As we’ve outlined, doctors have a high average annual salary compared to many other professions. But one of the things that many people fail to realize is that doctors often have a high student loan debt balance compared to many other professions.
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average medical student loan debt was approximately $250,990 in 2018. Doctors usually have a high student loan burden to get their medical degrees, often taking on seven times more in student loans than the average college graduate.
As a result, they have to pay back a high student loan debt, which severely impacts their overall financial standing and classification as “rich.”
2. Fewer Working Years
Due to the long and drawn-out schooling, doctors start their careers much later than other professions. While many professionals can start working directly after their undergraduate degrees, doctors must complete medical school, residency, and internships before starting their careers.
On average, doctors start their working careers anywhere between 29 and 34. This is because doctors typically spend 10 to 14 years completing all their required education. Doctors must complete four years of undergraduate, 4 years in medical school, and an additional 3 to 7 years in residency. That’s a lot of working years lost.
For every additional year, doctors spend in school compared to other professions, they lose a year of potential earnings had they chosen a different career. For example, careers such as financial analysts or engineers that only require a four-year degree earn a full-time salary, while doctors still complete their education.
To put that into perspective, an engineer would work between 7 to 11 years before a doctor earns a salary. With a median annual salary of approximately $100,000, an engineer would have earned between $700,000 and $1,100,000 before a doctor started earning theirs.
3. Malpractice and Insurance Costs
An often overlooked aspect of a doctor’s career is malpractice and insurance costs that they must bear. These premiums are often very high because doctors put themselves in a position with high liabilities.
As a result, these costs significantly reduce the annual earnings of a doctor. While this could seem unnecessary, doctors who fail to get insurance can potentially lose everything if found liable for some medical injury or other serious events.
Another expense that can affect the earnings of private practice doctors is health insurance coverage and insurance reimbursement rates. Insurance reimbursement rates and delays can have a significant impact on the earnings of private practice. As a result, private practices can take a considerable amount of time before they become profitable.
Doctors vs. Other High-Paying Professions
So how do doctor salaries compare to other high-paying professions?
First, according to a recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 22 of the top 25 highest-paying jobs in the United States belong to the medical profession. Only three other professions made the highest annual paying jobs list: chief executives, pilots/copilots, and computer and information systems managers.
However, there are also high-paying professions with plenty of variability depending on the field and experience. For example, senior attorneys can earn an average salary of up to approximately $220,000 annually. On the other hand, lawyers working for big law firms can earn a salary of $235,000 during their first year of practice and $530,000 in their 8th year of practice.
Other high-paying professions, such as Engineers, can earn an annual salary between $75,000 and $163,000. The top 10% of engineers by income can earn anywhere between $100,000 and $220,000, depending on the industry. The average engineer in the United States made approximately $100,000, regardless of industry.
Another high-paying profession, financial advisor, makes an average of $130,000 (as of 2023.) Meanwhile, information system and security managers, actuaries, marketing managers, sales managers, and judges all have an average annual salary of less than $150,000.
Compared to other professions, the average salary of a doctor across all fields and specialties is significantly higher than most other professions. Few professions, such as lawyers, have a comparable average salary.
Are Doctors Rich? Or Are Doctors Wealthy?
Doctors are generally considered rich because of their high annual salaries, often placing them in the top 5% of earners in the United States.
But what is the difference between rich and wealthy, and how do doctors stack up against each measure? The term “rich” is often a measure of someone’s salary or income and how much liquid cash they have.
Based on this measure and the average salaries we’ve shared, most doctors would be considered rich (or close to) once they begin working. While the average annual salary for college graduates in the United States is approximately $140,000, doctors will earn at least a $200,000 starting salary, likely more depending on their specialty.
Are Doctors wealthy? Wealth is a very different measure than rich. Wealth often encompasses a person’s annual salary and net worth. Net worth is often a measure of a person’s assets and debts.
In terms of wealth, things get a little trickier. Because doctors typically have very high student loan debt, their overall wealth or net worth can be much lower. However, as they continue working, doctors increase their wealth faster than other professions.
Once a doctor’s student loans are paid off, they can more easily accumulate wealth and potentially make their way toward the $11 million target discussed in the beginning. Other factors could weigh them down, like insurance costs or other significant expenses, but a doctor at the higher end of the income spectrum has a good chance of reaching that threshold later in life.
Things Physicians Can Do to Build Their Wealth
There is no perfect way to build wealth, and there are books dedicated to teaching people how to turn their money into long-lasting wealth. Below are a few common ways that ” rich ” physicians can turn their annual salary into wealth.
1. Live Frugally and Don’t Over Spend
One of the main problems with high-earning individuals is they tend to spend a lot of money. Oftentimes when doctors begin earning their high salaries, they experience lifestyle inflation. In other words, physicians begin spending their money on a lavish lifestyle. However, if you want to grow your wealth significantly, the best thing you can do as a doctor is live below your means and save money. Doctors have significant income and therefore are able to access credit for their businessess that are not as accessible to other workers such as software engineers working for a tech company.
2. Invest in Retirement Accounts
As a doctor, you start your career much later than many professionals. As a result, you must contribute the maximum amount to your retirement accounts. Retirement accounts are most effective when you contribute significant amounts of money early, allowing you to take advantage of compound interest as much as possible. The more you contribute and leave it invested, the more wealth you can build.
3. Invest wisely or seek out Financial Advice
Investing is another essential part of building wealth. Given doctors have a sizable income to direct toward investments, the key is to invest wisely with less appetite for risk. Anyone is free to take more risks if they so choose. Still, most doctors have a relatively easy path toward significant wealth generation over time if they just focus on a simple investment strategy. Many high-risk investment opportunities will seek out high-earning professionals to invest in higher-risk investments to chase high returns, but speculation isn’t always worth the gamble. While these investments may be worthwhile, investing your money wisely and mitigating your risks is best.
For high-earning professionals like physicians, the best way to develop a thoughtful investment strategy is to seek out a financial advisor. A financial advisor will help you invest responsibly while controlling your risk.
4. Build Additional Streams of Income
Another great way to build wealth and generate income is to build multiple income streams. As a physician, you might seek additional work that you can perform outside of your regular physician duties, such as medical surveys, writing, contract work, or teaching.
Another great alternative is to create passive streams of income. Physicians can take advantage of many forms of passive income, but one of the most common forms of passive income is real estate. While real estate does require significant upfront investments, physicians are one of the few professions that can often meet this requirement. Once you have some real estate, you can seek to monetize it by leasing it out to renters. You might have a mortgage for several years, but rent will usually cover this and, eventually, you will have that rent as a reliable form of passive income.
Whether or not doctors are rich is nuanced and depends on various factors such as specialty, geographic location, and debt levels. While their income often places them within the top 5% of earners in the United States, their high levels of student debt, insurance costs, and a delayed start to earning can impact their overall wealth. Thus, being “rich” in income does not necessarily equate to being “wealthy” in net worth. Furthermore, it is also imperative to note that different medical specialties come with varying income brackets, significantly influencing their financial standing.
However, physicians can significantly increase their wealth over time with careful financial planning and disciplined spending. This includes living frugally to avoid lifestyle inflation, investing wisely in retirement accounts and various forms of passive income, and seeking professional financial advice. While the journey to wealth may be slower for doctors due to their late start in their careers, their high-income potential provides a solid foundation to build considerable wealth in the long run. Therefore, physicians need to manage their finances responsibly and strategically to transform their “rich” income into lasting wealth.